Silence: Reflections on Unreasonable Themes (Introduction)

This is something else entirely.


All this madness—the anxious head-scratching going on all around us about our country, the future, Trump, Jeff Sessions, and every and all of their nativist delusions—reminds me of a major defect of being a philosopher. It is a defect that manifests itself (in me) in nervous acts of overthinking, rationalization, and prediction (bordering on prophesy) that corners me into a paralyzing self-doubt and fear and anger and an unacceptable feeling of powerlessness (maybe uselessness?). I call the consciousness of this defect my crisis of reason. But this crisis was not born in the shit of our current fears. This crisis began last year when, due to a freak illness, I came thiiissss close to that impossible impossibility that obscure existentialist (Heidegger/Derrida) tells us may or may not lie ahead. As I faced my impossible experience, i.e., the impossibility of my own death, I could not string together a rational thought; when the impossibility was articulated, I didn’t resist it with reason. I knew without knowing that no theory, no analysis, not truth or justification would keep me from my fate; I would have to cross that door, there was no other way, and I let go. I stopped trying to make sense of things—there was nothing to argue, no one to convince, nothing to gain—and welcomed into my mind a silence that had seemingly been there all along. It seemed to engulf me in an inexplicable peace as it carried me like a soft wave into my induced sleep. When I woke up, I was not the same; a crisis had appeared, and I’ve been trying to resolve it for the last year. But now, I think, it’s gone.

Before I tell you what I mean, I want to spend some time in the next few posts thinking about philosophy, silence, and, what I’ll call, the existentialism of conversion. I will think with Jorge Portilla, Luis Villoro, and Guillermo Hurtado—three Mexican philosophers who might know what I mean, or clarify for others what I mean, or lend authority to what it is that I mean.

For now, some preliminary words. What is going on today, this madness, this crisis of faith in our political institutions, in the worth of our neighbors, is nothing new, nor anything that we can’t overcome. Whatever it is, it will be done with—in time. It will cost lives, and dreams, and sleep; but it will be done. And it will pass. And those that survive will build better, stronger, things—or they will not. But first, we have to get past this madness, or it will poison us.

I think here of a line by the Chilean poet Vicente Huibodro (1893-1948), a line that begins the third stanza of his poem “Arte Poética” of 1916, where he proclaims: “Estamos en el ciclo de los nervios” [We are in the cycle of nerves]. From the context (you can go ahead and read it yourself. You should read it yourself; it’s an amazing poem and he’s an amazing poet) it’s not clear if Huidobro meant that we are nothing but manifestations of our nervous systems, reacting and over-reacting to the world and what it gives us, or that we are in an era of nervousness. In either case, I feel like telling my nervous friends something inspired by either of those readings: we are, once again, or have always been, the nervous types or, we are, once again, in a cycle of nervousness, so relax your shoulders, be still…the answer lies in silence.

Be still. How to get to that quiet, that stillness, that silence? How do we get to that state of detachment that Villoro will describe in his La mesquita azul or that Wittgenstein demands in his Tractatus? I’m inspired by a line in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn that I’ve always loved—it’s the first line of the book. He writes: “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.” I don’t remember what Miller himself meant with this; I read it when I was all-powerful and seemingly eternal, sometime in my early 20s, and it stayed in my heart, as some profound truth that was too profound to be true or too beautiful to be false. Read today, it’s a clue to the achievement of stillness, to the possibility of silence. Here’s my brief, two sentence, interpretation: once one gives up the self (the right to control the uncontrollable, e.g., control over the physics and metaphysics of a chaotic universe hurling in the void) then all things will appear to happen as if by necessity, as if they were going to happen this way anyway, as if your intervention would’ve mattered little to their happening. And, once one achieves this distance from the immediacy of desire, that which must be done becomes clear. How Zen, indeed!

The last thing I want to suggest is that we shouldn’t do anything about the current madness, that we shouldn’t speak, raise our voices, and mobilize in the name of justice. What I’m suggesting, rather, is that there is peace in the sought after silence, a means to re-group, the possibility of revelation and a path to real action. (See, I meant it when I said I would be reflecting on “unreasonable themes”!) The philosophers that I’ll think about, or with whom I will think—Villoro, Portilla, and Hurtado—will arrive, in their own way, at this insight or a variation of it, or suggest it without saying it. They do this not through their studies of the Tao or the Zen masters, not because they themselves are profound philosophers (which they certainly are); they will arrive here through an experience, profound as it is simple, which escapes reason, rationality, and philosophy.

I’ll begin with Portilla. (next)


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